The whole ‘tablets and PCs’ discussion today reminds me a great deal of similar conversations we used to have a decade ago about ‘laptop or desktop’.
That is, someone would ask a vaguely technical friend whether they should buy a laptop or a desktop. And the answer would be “well, how much money do you have and what do you want to do with it?” Laptops were portable but had smaller screens, less power and were more expensive. Which trade-off depended on how you planned to use it.
Over time that break point shifted: laptops got less expensive and much more powerful - today there are very few tasks that need the power a desktop can give, but the screen size point remains (though of course external screens are cheap). And so laptops grew to roughly half the PC market by volume. The desktop market didn’t go away - mostly for screen size or cost reasons (if you’re outfitting an office of 10k people, none of whom take their work out of the office, why buy laptops?)
Much the same analysis applies to tablets today - "what are you going to do with it?" Are you going to do sophisticated, complex, multi-app computing? Lots of keyboard work and detailed manipulation that a mouse is better for? Apps that are only ON a PC? Then get one (whether desktop or laptop). Mostly web, email, games, video, social networks and you’re walking around all the time? A tablet might suit you very well. You probably have a PC too - there’s very little actual substitution right now, but there is an impact on the PC replacement cycle (as well as expanding the pie massively, especially in emerging markets, which is another conversation).
And of course this break point will move as well, just as the laptop/desktop break point did - tablets will get faster and more sophisticated and capable of substituting more tasks. And so we should expect to see tablets taking a growing chunk out of the PC market.
(The other way to slice this is that the PC market is split very roughly half and half between consumer and corporate - corporate boxes will remain longer than consumer PCs, but there’ll be erosion in both.)
Another very important lens to look at this through, though, is Microsoft Office. Office is extremely good (tautologically) at the things it’s good at - there is no credible alternative to Excel for making large financial models and no credible alternative to Powerpoint for making 150-page pitch books, for example. Free alternatives nibble around the edges, and specialised use cases such as statistics have been carved out long ago, but the real threats come from use cases where you shouldn’t really be using Office at all.
This ‘shouldn’t use’ comes from both above and below. Someone said to me on Twitter (I now can’t find who) that their consulting business spent half its time telling people to stop using Excel and use a database and the other half telling people to to stop using a database and use Excel. That is, Excel is used as a business information system in a huge number of companies. It’s a powerful and flexible IDE on its own terms, and this is sometimes a good use, but it often isn’t, and specialized SAAS services will probably carve out an increasing number of these use cases. When I worked at Orange there was a multi-megabyte Excel file on the network drive called, I believe, ‘sum_of_x.xls’ containing complex macros and every major operating metric for the entire company, there for anyone who needed to analyze high-level data. That should probably not, really, be in Excel today.
The same applies to Powerpoint - it’s a very good tool for that 150 slide deck, but what if you’re making a 10-slide deck each week that consists entirely of operating metrics pulled out of a back-end system, manipulated in Excel and pasted into slides, plus commentary, that are emailed to 25 people? Shouldn’t that change from a 2 hour task to a SAAS dashboard and a 30-second task? And would it still need a mouse and keyboard?
(This point also bears on the future of email itself, but that's another topic.)
This carving out comes from below, too. One of these is the Google Docs story, about there can be much debate, but to me the interesting challenge is embodied by this screenshot - the ‘new file’ menu in Excel.
This is, of course, all about unbundling and specialisation. Office apps (generically) are very broad and deep and general purpose. Critics tend to focus on the depth and talk about how few people need all those features, but miss the breadth - of how many things a general purpose ‘table’ app or ‘make pages’ app can be used for (including what look to technical people like misuses - the classic example being the person who pastes a screenshot into a Word document and emails that). I'd suggest that a meaningful proportion of Excel use doesn't involve formulas, for example, just lists and tables and page layout - IDE as DTP. New routes to market and new interaction models provide new ways to challenge that hegemonic interaction model, just as smartphones allow the unbundling of Facebook's interaction models - SAAS changes Office and so do app stores.
This brings us back to the mouse and keyboard that you ‘need for real work’, as the phrase goes. Yes, you really do need them to make a financial model. And you need them to make an operating metrics summary - in Excel and Powerpoint. But is that, really, what you need to be doing to achieve the underlying business purpose? Very few people's job is literally 'make Excel files'. And what if you spend the other 90% of your time on the road meeting clients and replying to emails? Do you need a laptop, or a tablet? Do you need a tablet as well as a smartphone? Or a laptop, or phablet? Or both?
Well, what do you want do with it? it’s all just glass - the only real different is the size and the input mechanism that suits your task.
A symbolic moment, this: in Q4 2013 the number of computers* sold by Apple was larger than the number of Windows PC sold globally. If you add Windows Phone to the mix they're more or less exactly equal.
This is a pretty good illustration of the scale of mobile: Apple limits itself only to the high end of the mobile market but still sells more units than the whole PC industry.
(*Macs, iPhones, iPod Touches and iPads)
For even great clarity, this shows just Windows PCs and iOS devices - Microsoft's old business and Apple's new one. Obviously, Apple's business is more seasonal and the iOS number will probably be lower next quarter - hence my opening line: a symbolic moment.
The comments to this post were passionate but not all that productive. It's a pretty simply point: mobile is the next computing platform and it's a lot bigger than PCs in unit sales, so even the smaller player can overtake the total PC business. It really didn't occur to me that anyone would disagree with this. I've closed comments.
It seems pretty clear from Microsoft's messaging (including the carefully placed ‘off the record briefings’) that it thinks Windows Phone will work if it’s given more time, more effort and more execution.
Merge the Nokia sales and marketing teams. Add enterprise features. Pay more developers to port their apps. Make better tools. Keep pushing, and pushing, and pushing, and eventually things will lift off the ground. The shift to mobile is clearly an existential threat to large parts of Microsoft’s business, but unlike, say, Blackberry sales, the Windows/Enterprise nexus isn’t going to collapse any time soon, so Microsoft has time to get things right. Just throttle up and head down the runway - you’ll get up off the ground eventually.
This strategy reminds me of the video below. It works best with the sound turned up.
Given that Windows Phone 8 is effectively the second version since the post-iPhone reboot, you could even invoke the old rule of thumb that Microsoft takes three attempts before it wins. So just keep pushing and you’ll do… OK. The Nokia takeover document proposes a 15% smartphone market share target, which is respectable, though hardly victory and a long way from classic Ballmerian bombast.
The problem with this narrative, though, is that the problems with Windows Phone will not be fixed by product quality, execution, perseverance or capital. Nor can Microsoft count on the market leaders screwing up, which often helped out in the past. Rather, Microsoft is now on the wrong side of precisely the same dynamic that came close to killing Apple 20 years ago: developers are not choosing it.
By the end of the year there will be perhaps 1.1bn Android phones in use, and around 300m iPhones. And perhaps 50m Windows Phones. That’s a very quick decision for most developers, and that trajectory is not changing. Can Microsoft brute-force its way through this? Perhaps. But it seems unlikely.
This prompts the question of what else Microsoft might do. In any discussion of fundamental strategy it's helpful to recall an observation by Santayana: 'Fanaticism consists of redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.’ What is Microsoft’s aim? Is it to sell lots of Windows Phones? Is it to extend the generation-old strategy of ‘Windows Everywhere’ to mobile? Or is it to be a vital, important and relevant platform and applications company?
Arguably, Windows Phone is just a tactic, and a failing one at that. Microsoft, like Nokia in 2010, should move from denial to acceptance and work out what comes next.
Marc Andreessen famously declared that the web would reduce Windows to “a poorly debugged set of device drivers" (a good example of climbing out of the Trojan Horse before you’re inside the city). But how far down the device stack does Microsoft really need to go? 60% of revenue, after all, comes from enterprise and business services. Does Microsoft need to make the device drivers on a phone? The networking stack? The power management stack? It might like to, but does it need to?
It seems to me that a new Microsoft CEO must at least consider turning Android into a stack of poorly debugged device drivers. After all, Google has stolen Microsoft's natural place in mobile: it is Android that fills the role taken by Windows in the PC world. There is no free slot in the 'poorly debugged device driver' game. But there is a very big one in providing a stable, secure ecosystem, in providing a managed environment for enterprise, in corporate messaging, and in putting corporate documents onto mobile, on whatever platform. And even, perhaps, in providing a polished, safe consumer Android experience. Right now Microsoft is leaving all of that vacant. This screenshot, from a friend at a very big fund management company, is pretty damning. He's organised all his apps by ecosystem - compare Google and Good with Microsoft. Microsoft should not have allowed this to happen.
What if Microsoft were to do what Amazon has done to Android? Make a suite of services for mobile, ranging from sandboxed apps for iOS to a complete ROM for Android, and everything in between. Buy Cyanogen and Good. Make its own launcher, UI and app store? Above all, put Office and Exchange on the iPad.
Once you start down this route the possibilities iterate almost indefinitely. But they all start from Microsoft being on a platform that people will buy and developers code for. Once it arrives there, all the rest of Microsoft's still-remaining strengths might be brought to bear. But if it sticks with wanting to own the kernel then it may end up like the peasant in Molière who dug a ditch around his house and called himself Monsieur de l'Isle.
It’s been very clear that for some time that Windows Phone was not working. It isn’t failing, exactly - sales are drifting slowly upwards and it’s ahead of Blackberry in some markets (as though that was an achievement), but it sold 20-25m units in the last 12 months where Android sold 430m or so (and perhaps another 150m in China) and the iPhone 143m. It’s irrelevant in the scope of the industry, and for Microsoft that counts as failure. For Nokia, meanwhile, simple finance was an issue: Microsoft’s announcement says that operating break-even is 50m units, a long way off at current growth rates. So, something had to change.
There’s lots of detail in the transaction structure to pick over. Why is Nokia licensing the brand instead of selling it when it has no consumer-facing business? Why isn’t Microsoft buying Here, the location platform? Why are the patents licensed instead of sold? Why did Microsoft take on the featurephone business?
I have thoughts on some of these, but they’re not really important. What matters is what happens next.
My initial reaction, like many, was that this changes nothing. Windows Phone is failing because of a classic vicious circle: consumers will not buy it because it has very few apps, and developers will not target it because very few consumers own one. There may be 20-30m Windows Phones in use, but there are 250m iPhones and over 900m Android phones out there. As a developer, any investment you make in Windows Phone is investment you’re not making in iOS or Android, and that opportunity cost delta is huge. There are other issues (distribution and sales commissions most obviously) but those are secondary: the ecosystem itself is sub-scale and that is self-perpetuating.
So, the acquisition solves Nokia’s problem (running out of cash) and hence is a tactical move by Microsoft: it prevents the only significant Windows Phone OEM from exiting the market. It is possible that Nokia threatened to switch to Android otherwise (the relevant contracts are getting close to renewal), rather as Motorola threatened to sue other Android OEMs before Google bought it.
But ownership by Microsoft will not of itself change the sales of Windows Phones. If anything, it will decrease them, since it prompts other OEMs to give up on it entirely. It will not make more developers make Windows Phone apps or more consumers buy the devices. And it does little or nothing for Windows on tablets. Something else needs to change.
Microsoft IS going through a fundamental strategic change. Steve Ballmer is leaving - possibly pushed out. It is moving from a business line to a functional structure, and reorganising to become a devices and services company. The (misfired) Surface was one step towards devices, but owning a handset manufacturer is a much bigger one.
Suppose, for the sake of argument, that Microsoft does make a significant change in strategy - something that would give it a much better chance to become relevant in mobile. Owning Nokia - both the featurephone and smartphone parts - might well be part of that.
That is, is this a doubling down on the existing, failing strategy, or a foundation for a new one?
A good chart is worth a thousand words.
There's an old saying in British politics that all political careers end in failure. That applies, I think, to Steve Ballmer. In some ways he did a superb job in the last 30-odd years. But he leaves with Microsoft irrelevant in the new paradigm of the tech industry, mobile.
(I wrote a post looking in more detail at Microsoft's irrelevance here.)
Quarterly numbers are all well and good, but sometimes it takes a really long-term chart to see what's going on. This one shows unit sales and average selling prices of PCs (including Macs, not that it matters) since 1995, the year Microsoft sealed its victory with Windows 95.
This is really a classic illustration of the demand curve; falling prices and rapid growth in unit volumes, mainly driven by the growth of the PC internet. And, of course, the dip downwards in the last few quarters. The contrast with the exploding sales of the new wave of mobile UNIX devices is pretty obvious.
The practical effect of this is that Microsoft's share of connected devices sales (in effect, PCs plus iOS and Android) has collapsed from over 90% in 2009 to under a quarter today.
Just as overnight success can take a lifetime, so overnight collapse can also take a long time. There are founders creating companies today who weren't born when people were still actually scared of big bad 'Micro$oft'. It stopped setting the agenda 18 years ago. Windows 95 was the moment of victory, but was also the peak: it came just at the moment that the Internet started taking off, and Microsoft was never a relevant force on the internet despite investing tens of billions of dollars.
But you needed a PC to use the internet, and for almost everyone that PC ran Windows, so Microsoft's failure to create successful online services didn't seem to matter. Microsoft survived and thrived in the PC internet era, despite appearing to be irrelevant, by milking its victory in the previous phase of the technology industry. PC sales were 59m units in 1995 and rose to over 350m in 2012. Of course, that's now coming to an end.
Though it looks like we've passed the tipping point, this process isn't going to be over quickly. PC sales aren't going to zero this year. But the replacement cycle, already at 5 years, will lengthen further and further, more and more apps will move to mobile or the cloud, and for many people the PC will end up like the printer or fax - vestigial reminders of an older way of doing things. Microsoft may yet manage to turn Windows tablets and phones into products with meaningful market share, but it will never be dominant again.
A few commentators seem to think I'm ignoring (or just don't know about) Microsoft's enterprise and games businesses. That isn't the point. Those are perfectly good businesses, but they don't set the agenda. They don't drive the future of the consumer technology world. No-one's afraid of them.
In Q4, Apple sold 75m iOS devices and 4.1m Macs. Most estimates of total PC (including Mac) sales in the same period were around 90m.
In other words, Apple is now (in peak quarters) selling as many computing devices as Windows. This trend is not going to change.
Almost as interesting as this milestone is how, well, boring and predictable it feels. That war was over a long time ago.
Smartphones are moving from a high-end luxury to a billion-unit-a-year business. Yet one of the fascinating things about the industry right now is just how many companies are in serious trouble, and how many things are totally uncertain. We could easily see a major handset brand get bought or just disappear in the next 12 months, but every single handset company faces fundamental and often existential questions:
- Will Apple make a cheaper phone, moving below $600 new? How would it do it? (How) would it maintain segmentation? Would that be a $300 phone? A $100 phone?
- Will Microsoft make its own phone? Will Windows Phone finally get any traction?
- What happens to Nokia if Windows Phone gets no traction? What if it does? Does Microsoft buy it?
- What is the future of Nokia's featurephone business? How big will Asha be?
- How much longer will RIM survive? Who will buy the wreckage?
- What happens to the struggling Android OEMs, HTC, LG and Sony? Is there an M&A roll-up here?
- What is Google going to do with Motorola? Shut it down? Break it up? Let it carry on running into the ground? Or give up on the firewall?
- Is Google's whole approach to Android sustainable? Will it move more towards Nexus handsets, or does that remain just a low-volume showcase?
- Is Samsung's leading position sustainable?
- Will the Chinese move up-market and become major consumer players in the West?
- Will the Chinese try to buy a non-Chinese OEM? RIM? HTC? Would they be allowed to?
- What is the future of the subsidy model? Will operators (and consumers) move decisively away from them? What would have to change to do that?
- (late addition) Will Samsung remain committed to Android, refocus on Windows Phone, fork Android or all of the above?
- (late addition) Will Amazon make a 'Fire Phone'?
- (late addition) Will Apple's monopoly of the high-end ($600+) phone market continue, or will Android/Windows Phone improve to the point they can take it on head-to-head?
- (late addition) Will Intel become relevant in mobile? Would it do a big acquisition? Panic and buy an Android OEM?
I have pretty considered opinions about most of these - but there are no clear answers to any of them. Massive amounts could change, quite easily, in the next year to two.
Finally communicating the product. Not bad execution. Carefully avoids the sort of geeky gender-specificity that Android tends to fall into. But not as warm as Apple.
A little perspective on the ‘Microsoft’s wasted decade’ meme: revenue went up 6x in the 15 years after 1995, the year Windows 95 came out, which was arguably the company’s high point.
Of course, Apple’s revenue grew far more, and Apple has changed a great deal in the last decade, but equally important have been changes that have brought the market much closer to Apple. Apple has ￼always sold a product in which specifications were less important than design, quality and experience. In the past, the computer industry was a commodity bulk business in which design was irrelevant and technical specifications were everything, and purchase decisions were taken by IT managers who never even saw the devices. Microsoft sold the perfect product for that market, and Apple naturally remained a niche player.
Today, Moore’s Law has advanced to the point that increases in performance are much less noticeable: a 50% increase in CPU speed may be imperceptible to a typical user, and specifications are irrelevant to large parts of the market. This makes the other parts of the purchase decision much more important, and this is where Apple has always focused its efforts: design, experience and build quality.
The first manifestation of this was growth in laptops, which were 66% of Apple Mac unit sales in 2010 (and 72% in the 12m to June 2012), versus 30% in 2001.
Yet mobile and tablets are markets even better suited to Apple’s model than PCs. There is no locked-in Windows install base, while the purchase decision is entirely personal and highly dependent on the physical object and the software experience – the areas that Apple has spent 30 years focusing on and Microsoft deliberately sacrificed to achieve broader reach. Apple even has the advantage in marketing – it is possible to demonstrate the iPhone UI in a 30 second TV spot in a way that it is not possible to demonstrate the Mac OS.
In other words, you could argue that you should ignore the personalities. Both Microsoft and Apple carried on doing what they had always done at their best; what has changed is the market. That’s not entirely fair, but it’s worth considering.
Note: I made the chart for a report in 2011. I could update it, I suppose, but I can’t be bothered ;)
Microsoft’s launch event for the flagship ‘Surface’ Windows 8 tablet
An idle observation: Windows Phone has an embedded Facebook client that forms part of the address book, home page and half the screens in the OS. Microsoft tries very hard to get you to enable it when you turn on your new phone.
According to Facebook, there are now 1.3m active users of this client: see here (yes, this is the integrated one, not the one you can download yourself)
This number has gone up by 300k since mid-November. I would suggest that this means it is very unlikely that more than, say, 3-400k Nokia Windows Phones have been sold in the last two months. Certainly, this data point would be impossible to reconcile with the rumours of of several million units that are floating around.
We might or might not find out whether I’m right on Thursday, when Nokia reports Q4 2011 results: it will be interesting to see if they disclose that data point.
Well, Nokia sold ‘well over 1m Lumias’. How interesting. Either the Facebook data is wrong (unlikely), or a very high proportion of people buying the devices don’t set up the built-in Facebook integration, despite that being a major selling point. Interesting.
I’ve been playing with one of the new Nokia Lumia 800s for the past few days (and tweeting a fair bit about it). It isn’t my job to do a ‘review’ - you can find dozens of those online, but I will say that the industrial design is as good as anything Apple has produced - perhaps better. The Windows Phone UI is very polished, though it lacks a lot of the incremental features that Apple and Android have accumulated over the last two years. Most importantly, it never once slowed down, whereas the reviews of the latest Nexus - a phone that Google specified and controlled to be a showcase - all mention ‘the typical Android lag’. I hate the PenTile screen though.
Of course, the two Lumias that Nokia announced last week are the first outputs of a crash program that we should expect to yield half-a-dozen more models in the next 12 months, and it is the totality of that portfolio that will determine Nokia’s survival.
Hence the key issues for now are things like the retail and operator ranging outlook, the lack of a US launch until 2012 and the lack of a low-end model (the cheapest Windows Phone Nokia so far is €270 pre-subsidy where you can buy a decent Android phone for $150 and a working one for $100). The app experience is actually surprisingly good. Though Windows Phone lacks the apps that you’re used to if you’re coming from Apple or even Android, if you come to it from RIM, Symbian or a featurephone you’ll be dazzled by all the great stuff that is there. Microsoft appears to have taken two or three dozen best-selling games for iOS and ported them to Windows Phone, a very sensible move. I’ve written a ‘proper’ report on all these issues and more for Enders Analysis.
However, I also wanted to point out that there’s a hidden value partner here: Facebook. This is effectively a Facebook phone: your address book, messaging and photos effectively ARE your Facebook content. The video below explains this better than I can - 9/10 of the value of your day-to-day experience is the deep integration of Facebook (and also twitter and LinkedIn) with your phone.
What does this mean? First of all, it is much easier for Google to get web search onto a Windows Phone device than it is for it to get Google Plus onto that device. There is a hard-coded Bing Button on the phone, but you can easily pin Google to your home screen. But Google Plus posts won’t show up next to my friends’ names unless Microsoft puts them there. Google’s fear of being blocked from mobile devices, which prompted Android in the first place, is becoming just a little more real.
Maybe, apps are not the lock-in that we tend to assume.
I have a LOT of iPhone apps - iTunes tells me I’ve downloaded 493, many of which I have no memory of (according to Apple cumulative app downloads/total iOS devices sold is 72, though this is a blended figure). But many, perhaps most of my apps are either free or disposable.
On one hand, there are essential utilities such as Dropbox, Evernote, Amazon or, yes, Facebook. These are free and cross-platform. So long as I switch between mobile platforms big enough to be supported by these services, many of the apps that are most crucial do me on a day-to-day basis do not lock me in to any given platform.
On the other hand, there are lots of paid apps, especially on iOS. If you divide cumulative gross app revenue on iOS (which Apple discloses, sort of) by total device sales you get to an average of $16 per device.
But again, at least half of these are games, and most of the games that I’ve bought I don’t really want to play again after a few months, and so I don’t care that, a year later, I won’t be able to use them on my new phone. So it seems to me that most games are essentially disposable. The exception are social games - but of course many of those or will be cross-platform too, with my achievements following me from client to client. So, no lock-in here either, perhaps.
I don’t want to over-state the case - clearly there are many paid, essential apps that are only on one platform and may well lock people in to that platform. But for a lot of people, the sacrifice of apps that they must make when they switch platforms could actually be pretty small. Conversely, switching social network is vastly harder, especially if it’s deeply integrated into my phone, and Google Plus isn’t.
So all those people who are talking about how Nokia has sold its soul to Microsoft might be missing the point - actually, Microsoft sold it to Facebook.
There’s a big difference between making a great concept, free from the constraints of what’s actually possible given technology, economics and industry structure, and shipping a product that’s stepped through a door from the future. Compare Microsoft Office with Apple’s Siri.